Batteries in millions of electric vehicles will be deprecated in the next decade. What about them?


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A tsunami of electric vehicles is expected in developed countries. Car company When Government pledges To increase their number – predicted to be 145m Electric vehicles can play an important role in reducing emissions, but they also include batteries, which are potential environmental time bombs.

According to one estimate 12m ton The number of lithium-ion batteries will be discontinued between now and 2030.

Not only do these batteries require large amounts of raw materials such as lithium, nickel and cobalt, but they also require Climate, environment When human rights Impact – They also threaten to leave a pile of e-waste when they reach the end of their lives.

As the automotive industry begins to change, experts say it’s time to plan what will happen to the battery at the end of its life, reduce its reliance on the mining industry, and keep the material circulating.

Second life

Hundreds of millions of dollars are pouring into recycling start-ups and research centers, finding ways to break down dead batteries and extract precious metals on a large scale.

But if we want to do more with the materials we have, recycling shouldn’t be the first solution, said James Pennington, head of the World Economic Forum’s Circular Economy Program. “The best thing to do first is to keep things going longer,” he said.

“many [battery] Jessica Richter, a researcher in environmental policy at Lund University, said: These batteries may no longer be able to power the vehicle, but they can have a second life to store the surplus electricity generated by solar and wind farms.

Several companies are testing. Energy company Ener Group uses 90 batteries recovered from Nissan Leaf cars at an energy storage facility in Melilla, Spain, isolated from Spain’s national power grid. In the UK, energy company Powervault has partnered with Renault to equip a home energy storage system. With used battery..

An employee installs a lithium-ion battery cell in a test system at the Powervault office in London.  Powervault is one of several companies offering Second Life for lithium-ion batteries.

An employee installs a lithium-ion battery cell in a test system at the Powervault office in London. Photo: Simon Dawson / Bloomberg via Getty Images

There is another bonus in establishing the flow of lithium-ion batteries from the first life of an electric vehicle to the second life of a stationary energy storage. It is a replacement for toxic lead-acid batteries.

According to Richard Fuller, head of the non-profit Pure Earth, only about 60% of lead-acid batteries are used in automobiles, and an additional 20% is used to store excess solar power, especially in African countries.

Lead-acid batteries usually last only about two years in warm climates, according to Fuller. This is because heat deteriorates faster and needs to be recycled frequently. However, few facilities in Africa can do this safely.

Instead, these batteries often crack and melt in the backyard. This process exposes the recycler and its surroundings to lead. Lead is a powerful neurotoxin. There is no known safety level It can impair the development of the child’s brain.

Lithium-ion batteries have the potential to provide a less toxic and long-lasting alternative for energy storage, Fuller said.

Recycling competition

“When the battery isn’t actually used, it’s time to recycle it,” Pennington said.

There is Big momentum Behind the recycling of lithium-ion batteries. In an impact report published in August, Tesla announced that it has begun building a recycling function to dispose of waste batteries at the Gigafactory in Nevada.

Nearby Redwood Materials, founded by former Tesla Chief Technology Officer JB Straubel, based in Carson City, Nevada. Raised over $ 700 million We plan to expand our business in July. The factory takes in dead batteries, extracts valuable materials such as copper and cobalt, and sends the refined metal back to the battery supply chain.

However, as recycling becomes more mainstream, major technical challenges remain.

One is the complex design that recyclers have to navigate to reach valuable components. Lithium-ion batteries are rarely designed with recyclability in mind, said Carlton Cummins, co-founder of British battery manufacturing startup Aceleron. “This is why recyclers are struggling. They want to work, but they are only introduced when the product arrives at the door.”

Cummins and co-founder Amrit Chandan target one design flaw in how components are connected. According to Cummins, most components are welded and suitable for electrical connections, but not for recycling.

Aceleron batteries connect components with fasteners that compress metal contacts together. These connections can be decompressed and the fasteners removed so that they can be completely disassembled or individual defective components can be removed and replaced.

Easier disassembly also helps alleviate safety issues. Lithium-ion batteries that are not handled properly can pose a risk of fire or explosion. “If we pick it up little by little, I guarantee you, it won’t hurt anyone,” Cummins said.

System changes

Even if the technical challenges are resolved, success is not guaranteed. History shows how difficult it is to create a well-functioning recycling industry.

For example, lead-acid batteries have a high recycling rate due to legal requirements. 99% Lead in automotive batteries is recycled.But they Toxic cost When they arrive at an inappropriate recycling facility. Spent batteries can often be a backyard recycler because you can pay more than a formal recycler who has to cover higher operating costs.

Lithium-ion batteries may be less toxic, but they still need to be safely recycled. “Products tend to flow through the path with the least resistance, so we need to reduce the resistance of the path through the formal channel,” Pennington said.

The law can help.The United States has not yet implemented a federal policy requiring the recycling of lithium-ion batteries, but with the EU China Already battery manufacturers have to pay to set up a collection and recycling system. These funds could help to subsidize formal recyclers and make them more competitive, Pennington said.

Last December, the EU also proposed Drastic change It complies with its battery regulations, most of which are for lithium-ion batteries. These include a target rate of 70% for battery collection, a recovery rate of 95% for cobalt, copper, lead and nickel, 70% for lithium, and a mandatory minimum level of recycled content for new batteries by 2030. It buffers them from volatile commodity prices and changes in battery chemistry.

“They aren’t in their final form yet, but the suggestions there are ambitious,” Richter said.

The data can also be useful. Both the EU and the Global Battery Alliance (GBA), a public-private partnership, are working on a version of the digital “passport”, which is an electronic record of the battery that contains information about the entire life cycle.

“We have a QR code or [radio frequency identification] “Detective,” says Torsten Freund, who heads the GBA Battery Passport Initiative. It reports battery status and remaining capacity to help automakers recycle or send batteries to recycling facilities. Data on materials can help recyclers navigate the myriad of chemicals in lithium-ion batteries. Also, as recycling becomes more widespread, passports may show the amount of recycled contents of new batteries.

Now that the automotive industry has begun to change, it’s time to tackle these issues, said Maya Ben Dror, urban mobility leader at the World Economic Forum. The money poured into the sector provides “an opportunity to ensure that these investments are made not only in new types of cars, but also in sustainable new ecosystems,” she said.

It is also worth noting that sustainable transportation goes beyond electric vehicles, according to Richter. You shouldn’t miss walking, biking, or using public transport, she said. “It’s important to remember that you can put sustainable products in an unsustainable system.”